DES MOINES — Abortion would be illegal in Iowa after six weeks of pregnancy — often before the woman knows she is pregnant — if Gov. Kim Reynolds’ request to the Iowa courts is granted.
Reynolds filed a motion Thursday asking a state court to lift an injunction on legislation passed in 2018 that would have banned abortions in Iowa at six weeks. That bill, passed by the Republican-led Iowa Legislature and signed into law by Reynolds, was halted at the time by a district judge who cited a previous Iowa Supreme Court ruling that negated a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion.
But since the U.S. Supreme Court and Iowa Supreme Court earlier this year issued rulings that effectively repealed a pregnant person’s right to abortion access, Reynolds is asking the state courts to now lift the injunction on the six-week ban.
“The historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe has given us a new hope and pathway forward to challenge the Iowa court’s previous decision,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Life and death are determined by a person’s heartbeat, and I believe that includes our unborn children. As long as I’m governor, I will stand up for the sanctity of life and fight to protect the precious and innocent unborn lives.”
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Currently, abortion is legal in Iowa through 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The 2018 legislation is known as the fetal heartbeat bill, so named by its supporters because they say it bans abortions after a fetus’ heartbeat can be detected.
However, medical experts say the heart is not developed at six weeks, and ultrasound machines at that point in a pregnancy are not actually detecting a heartbeat. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, what is actually heard at six weeks is the ultrasound machine translating electronic impulses that signify cardiac activity.
“It is clinically inaccurate to use the word ‘heartbeat’ to describe the sound that can be heard on ultrasound in very early pregnancy. In fact, there are no chambers of the heart developed at the early stage in pregnancy that this word is used to describe, so there is no recognizable ‘heartbeat,’” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says.
If the court grants Reynolds’ request and the 2018 law is enacted, Iowa would join 13 other states that ban abortion at zero or six weeks of pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a national nonprofit organization that monitors states’ abortion laws and advocates for access to reproductive health care.
The Iowa law at issue includes an exemption for medical emergencies, and the ban would not apply to pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest, provided those are reported to law enforcement or a health care agency within specified time frames.
The law states that a woman should not be criminally charged for having an abortion. But it does not grant the same protection for a physician who performs an abortion, nor any individual who assists the pregnant person who has an abortion.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, has declined to represent the state in the case, citing his opposition to the legislation.
Reynolds, a Republican, and the state are being represented instead by Iowa conservative attorney Alan Ostergren and Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative legal organization that, according to its website, works to protect “religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family.”
Neither Ostergren nor the Alliance Defending Freedom are being paid by the state for their work on the case.
Iowa Democrats criticized Reynolds’ approach.
“Our main differences on reproductive health are that I will be a governor who supports the will of the people. A majority of Iowans are pro-choice and I stand with them,” Deidre DeJear, the Democratic candidate running against Reynolds in this fall’s election, said in a statement to The Gazette.
When asked to what extent abortion should be legal in Iowa, DeJear said Republicans are “focused on a numbers game.”
“I’m not willing to engage in that,” she said. “It’s simple: laws should protect, not regulate, women’s rights.”
During a virtual news conference Thursday, state lawmaker Jennifer Konfrst, the leader of the minority party Democrats in the Iowa House, noted public polling consistently shows a majority of Iowans and Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or most cases, and that Kansas voters recently voted down a proposed amendment that would have said their state’s constitution does not protect an individual’s right to abortions.
Iowa Republican state lawmakers have started the process of proposing a state constitutional amendment similar to the one that was voted down in Kansas. If approved by lawmakers again in 2023 or 2024, that proposal would be decided by Iowa voters as early as the 2024 elections.
“We know that Iowa Republicans want the most extreme abortion legislation they can get in the state. … So rather than waiting until the Legislature comes back in January and having an honest conversation about what abortion law looks like in Iowa and what reproductive freedom looks like in this state, Republicans are running to the courts and trying to have them circumvent the will of the people and address it that way. It’s another example of politics over people,” Konfrst said. “This is way extreme. We’ve seen voters across the country reject this, and because the governor knows voters would reject this here in Iowa, she’s playing politics.”